Das Schlangenei — Örmens ägg
Germany / USA, 1977
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 12 May 2005
Source MGM DVD
Made eight years after The Passion of Anna, The Serpent’s Egg may seem a rather strange addition to this boxed set. And indeed, it is quite obviously a different kind of Ingmar Bergman film. It is only Bergman’s second film in English (following The Touch), and it boasts an uncharacteristically large budget with enormous and elaborate sets. For these reasons (and others), the film often leaves audiences puzzled or simply cold: those anticipating a typically terse, introspective melodrama will be dissatisfied; those looking for a grand historical epic, confused by the film’s unabashed subjectivity.
One strange characteristic of the film is its unusually specific setting: November 3, 1923. Previously, Bergman’s period pieces had taken place in abstract times and places, often “around” the turn of the century, and with a tender, aristocratic nostalgia of which Smiles of a Summer Night is the most obvious example. The Serpent’s Egg could not be further away from those times and places. The setting is Berlin in the economic depths that followed World War I, where hunger and poverty are rampant. It is a world in which the fear and helplessness of the masses has bred only indifference, where people will gut a horse in the street for food, and random violence will go unnoticed (or worse, instigated) by the authorities.
The film concerns Abel Rosenberg, an American trapeze artist who has lately left the circus and taken to a lifestyle of drinking and whoring in Berlin. His life’s work is now the pursuit of oblivion. Like the tired and depressed hordes of faces we see plodding in slow motion during the film’s title sequence, Abel’s only hope is for some measure of peace and as much disengagement from the rest of the world as alcohol can provide. And as a Jew, he is even in denial about the rising aggression to his people and the violent diatribes in the evening paper inciting Germany’s Christians to rise up and defend themselves against the Jewish menace.
Abel’s apathy for politics, for his work, for his race, and indeed for anyone other than himself is immediately shaken as the film opens. In the first scene, Abel discovers that his brother has committed suicide, and he must locate his brother’s ex-wife, Manuela, to report the news. This renewed connection with Manuela draws Abel into a strange subplot of unexplained deaths and proto-Nazi human experiments, and he must struggle to maintain his sanity as the brutality of the outside world closes in upon him.
The Serpent’s Egg draws upon many sources that are new to Bergman. It owes much of its visual style and context to the early work of Fritz Lang, particularly M, with its exquisitely detailed sets and an almost identical sequence involving a police raid on a cabaret.
(The presence of Gert Froebe as the police inspector and his passing mention of an Inspector Lohmann also directly refer to Lang’s Mabuse films.) Similarly, the film is quite deliberately Kafkaesque: the Czech author moved to Berlin in 1923 and the unstable conditions there probably precipitated the final deterioration of his health. Kafka died the following year.
But in spite of the film’s obvious differences from Bergman’s earlier work, it nonetheless explores many of his favorite themes, particularly from the “island” films. Like Shame, it is in part a political film and a statement made on behalf of the most powerless individuals in society, those who are overwhelmed by the force of history and are swallowed up in the process. Also like the earlier films, The Serpent’s Egg explores its characters’ self-isolation, their attempt to inure themselves to the pain of living.
However, in its exploration of a particular historical time and place, The Serpent’s Egg also offers an additional elucidation of these earlier themes. Through his depiction of Weimar Berlin, Bergman illustrates how this emotional seclusion, in the form of mass apathy, can bring about horrible consequences. The “serpent’s egg” of the title refers to “the thin membranes [through which] you can clearly discern the already perfect reptile.” The shadow of Nazi Germany thus hangs over the events of the film as the inevitable result of apathy. The film concludes on November 11, 1923 with the report that Hitler has lost his first bid for power in Munich, but this is merely a false armistice. The future, as Abel realizes, is inevitable, and this minor victory provides no comfort.